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Original Essays

Among the Kids

by Barry Yourgrau (2007)
  1. Yet Another Nastybook: Mininasties
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Yet Another Nastybook: Mininasties

    Barry Yourgrau and Neil Swaab

  2. NASTYbook


    Barry Yourgrau

  3. Another NASTYbook: The Curse of the Tweeties
I'm a fiction writer. A couple of years ago I took the plunge, along with everyone and his brother, into writing kids' books. In my case, an "edgy" series called NASTYbooks, kind of anti-fairy tales — where everything turns out not for the best but always for the worst. "Ya mean, like Life?" said one young reader.

But I get ahead of myself.

I am also a longtime what they call "spoken-word performer," battle-hardened at reading aloud in boozy clubs and arty lounges in New York and L.A. Or on MTV. I even held forth in an indie film version of my book, The Sadness of Sex. (Very ahem indie.) I'm a happy ole multi-platformer, I am.

But there lay the rub, for me and kids' books.

Multi-platforming as a kiddies' author, you don't book-tour among lounge lizards. You go into schools. You peddle your act at bookstores with cute names like Wild Rumpus and Hicklebee's. And I don't have children.

I barely know any children.

My sister-in-law, who is a therapy social worker, semi-demanded if I'd Quote, Done any research? Unquote, to entitle me to inflict my imagination on minors.

I gave her my standard comeback: "What do I know about kids, you ask?" (Laugh) "Why, I just look in the mirror!"

True; but metaphorical. And the edgier question: How would actual ten- or thirteen-year-olds respond in the actual flesh to my post-40-year-old antics?

"Don't worry," scoffed my editor, who's an adult like me, at my jitters before my first NASTYbook tour. "They are gonna love ya!"

Oh, really?

And my first tour stop was to be a Baptism of Fire: a junior high auditorium near Chicago. Where 200 seventh graders awaited.

Two hundred seventh-graders...

Before setting out I pleaded to my girlfriend, "Help, sweetie! Should I start off with a bang, with my nose-picking story? Or should I put it at the end?"

"What the heck," she'd cried. "Show 'em what you got right away!"

Thank God I didn't listen to her! Instead I dug out that cheesiest cliché from my club gigs: Gauge the room, pally! (Like when I'd switched to short jokey stuff, opening for indie-pop chanteuse Jane Siberry for a week once, after a first night bombing flat with my subtle and literary.)

So now, looking out at the actual massed Illinois young faces (high little voice: "Anyone here hearda 'puberty'?") I thought:

If I begin with the sentence, "A boy likes to pick his nose," where else can this audience go but hysteria?

So I held off until the end, wisely. And had the pleasure of hearing a mob of kids squawking "Oooh, yuck!" While the adults giggled behind their hands... before turning a trifle wide-eyed as I pantomimed a frantic struggle with a monstrous nasal worm, to young laughs, squeals — even a shriek, maybe?

"Hey, that was great," gulped a language-arts teacher afterward, still a bit flushed and wide-eyed. (If I were in his position, and someone had shown up for an hour just to rev everyone into hysterics and then leave, I think I'd have slapped me. Twice, maybe.)

But I'd mislead if I said touring was all whipping big, young audiences into a rollicking froth. No, half the time, this being a book tour, it's just you and a mike and rows of empty folding chairs from which one of the three occupants slinks away resentfully as you step up to bellow an amplied, forlornly hearty, "Well, hello there, everyone!"

My very favorite first-tour snapshot was a poignant one, too. Though complex. It drew on another cliché: my performer's, um, heart. Outside Seattle I had a 6 p.m. signing at a chain megastore. A little table stood with my books piled up, expectant, and oh-so lonesome. Not a soul. Sheepishly, the store person informed me another event was also scheduled there in the kids' section. Now? I said, on that special touring-author's note of existential dismay. Hey, the store person exclaimed, inspired — Why didn't I team up with the other event?

I could read aloud to Rover!

"Rover..?" I bleated, bewildered.

Which is how I learned about Reading with Rover, a program where kids with reading disabilities read aloud to "therapy dogs" (who are non-judgmental listeners; and don't we all need 'em.)

At this point a voice in my head said: So you've come to this, oh hipster Yourgrau?


But hey: I'm a performer.

"Why — sure!!" I cried.

Which is how I met Becky, the trainer, and Moose, the big Labrador retriever, and all the others. And with Moose's tongue lap-lapping my ankle, I read my freakish fables about snot and farting to all ages of kids lounging there on the carpet with their panting, patient therapy dogs. And the parents grinned, a bit wide-eyed. Afterwards I signed my book to Moose — and received in return a handsome certificate: "To Barry — Thanks for the really Nasty stories!" With the big fella's "pawtograph."

Just a couple fellow performers on the kiddies' circuit, dontcha know.

Touring as a children's book author proved to be not so different, in the end, to doing a club act. I mean, hey, last year I read from my second NASTYbook on a great live radio show from Oxford, Missisippi, amid a lineup of blues bands! I came out with a pretty clever quip, I thought, desperate to hold my own: that most people didn't know, but at the start of his career, Muddy Waters had a kids' book author opening for him at dance parties!

The latest Nastybook, just out (Yet Another Nastybook: MiniNasties) features little lame poems as well as tiny tales, and it's gruesomely and fabulously illustrated by Neil Swaab. (I believe I'm "flogging product" here). After dog shows and blues bands, I wonder what lies ahead on the kids'-book author multi-platform? Hmm, I wonder if Ocean's Thirteen needs a kids' lit act at the opening night party? spacer

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